The blue ice-harvesting Lego robot peered up with two big eyes, dragging a rectangular green Lego contraption behind it.
The Lego device, designed to haul ice from a moon crater to an imaginary moon base, was created by a group of Parker Elementary School students who are part of a Lego Club created last March by Cortland residents Donald and Diane Chu.
Third-grade twins Cooper and Jackson George were part of the team that created the robot, but they said robotics wasn’t all they learned from the mission.
“We were trying to learn what it was like to live on the moon and try to get past the obstacles we had to face of air, water and energy being hard to get,” Cooper George said.
Children at this age learn the most through play, said SUNY Cortland Early Childhood Education professor Kate McCormick.
Orion Bennett, left, and Owen Coon compete Jan. 12 in Utica in a Lego competition that had a moon-based theme. They are part of a team from Parker Elementary School in Cortland.
Early childhood spans birth through age 8, McCormick said, and for that age play is the best vehicle for learning because it allows them to be expressive.
“If you provide open-ended materials like Legos, children can usually take that innate initiative they have already to manipulate with their hands,” she said. “Through play you can develop these inquiry skills you might not get in a traditional academic setting.”
Cooper George felt like he was playing the whole time but he was learning how to code, how to build robots out of Lego bricks and also just finding out more about space — like the fact there’s water in moon craters.
“We built a lot of cool things and we had a lot of creative ideas,” Cooper George said.
He had to design the ice-harvesting robot to pull the ice from the moon crater, and move within the dimensions of the moon base, a 15-inch by 30- inch space.
“For the length of 30 inches, it had to be on speed 8,” he said.
Jackson George took pride in his creativity — he conceived and created a patch with the team’s logo on it, “Legolu Nasa.”
Donald Chu — who started the club last year as part of an unsuccessful quest to save Parker Elementary School from closing in July — said students learned a lot about teamwork from the club.
On Jan. 12, the club took part at an international competition in Utica, said Chu, and while the club did not proceed beyond that, the students are participating Saturday in an expo at Cornell University.
The moon base will be on display, and students will demonstrate how the robots work.
Parker Elementary School Principal Katie Swanson said the club provides a fun, interactive way for the students to learn science and technology skills — components of science, technology, engineering and math requirements.
Using play to solve a problem, McCormick said, is a fantastic way for young students to experience the STEM content areas.
“Young children really need this tactile, sensorial experiences,” McCormick said. “Using all of their senses — and with technology you can do that as long as it’s developmentally appropriate.”
And for the kids, focused on making robots that would haul ice away from moon craters, it’s just fun.